Telling clients they’re idiots (or when not to give up)

Here at the house of WW, we have a few ethical principles which we hold dear.

We cherish all writers. We admire anyone who completes a full length novel and admire them even more if they’ve got some of their fullstops in the right places.

We believe strongly in the importance of craft: that golden combination of technique and hard work. We seek out editors who understand the craft of writing and who are passionate about passing that on. And our favourite clients are the ones who relish getting our tough-but-fair advice. We love those guys a lot (not least because they’re usually the ones who go on to get careers.)

Are YOU an idiot?

Cartoon from Jeffsaddmind.com

And of course, we cleave fast to our belief that sometimes it is OK – or no, actually positively fine and necessary – to tell our beloved clients that they are complete bloody idiots.

And so it was with a client who will remain nameless, but let’s call her, erm, Paul*ne Rend*ll.

She wrote a novel – a good one – and sent it to us. We gave her one of our fabulous editorial reports and she rejigged her book accordingly. So far, so sensible. As far as I know, no member of the WW team yet had reason to call Paul*ne an idiot.

Then our doughty heroine got her book out to a few agents. Four, to be precise. Some of those four asked to see the whole thing. None of them offered representation. Paul*ne thought, ‘Oh well, I tried, I may as well self-publish.’ And she did.

Now, we’re fine with people self-publishing. For many writers (including, sometimes, the traditionally published), it’s an excellent solution. But this was not one of those moments. And luckily, it so happened that I bumped into Paul*ne at a crime festival. We exchanged pleasantries. She told me how and why she’d chosen to self-publish. And I told her that she was an idiot. I may even have used the phrase “bloody idiot”.

Because here’s the thing. Paul*ne is a really good writer. Hers was a really good book. The fact that a number of agents had asked to see the full MS was proof that she was in the golden zone of possible acceptance. And she gave up too soon. You cannot decide anything after querying just four agents. Judgement is largely an objective affair (does this book have a good premise? Does the story hold together? Can the writer put a sentence together?), but liking is subjective. Any two agents will often broadly agree on the first set of questions, but diverge sharply on the second.

You must, must, must approach a representative group of agents before determining whether your book is or is not going to find a taker. Our rule of thumb is that you should approach 8-12 agents all told (possibly in 2 waves of submissions about 6 or 8 weeks apart.) If you go to fewer than that, you simply don’t know if your book is good enough or if you just got unlucky with the agents you approached. If you go to more than that, you are denying the obvious, which is that your book is not yet compelling the attention of professional readers.

So please, however uncomfortable it feels to get rejection letters, do:

  • Get your stuff out to 8-12 agents
  • Form a list of agents who might actually be open to your stuff, not just random names from a phone book. The best resource we know of for doing this is Agent Hunter … and yes, I know, it’s our site, so that’s hardly an unbiased endorsement. But then again, our site is WAY the best.
  • hold your nerve.
  • if you don’t get successful, then you have broadly speaking three options: (A) self-publish, (B) write a better book, (C) get professional advice on the one you’ve already written. Those options aren’t either/or. You might well choose to do all three things.

But back to our doughty heroine, and a happy ending. I told her she was a complete bloody idiot. She did not throw her drink in my face, or even pull a couple of kung fu moves on me. Indeed, she promised to go out to more agents with her manuscript. And quite right too! A few weeks later, and Paul*ne wrote to us to say, “I thought you’d like to know that the agency, Watson, Little, have said they want to represent me. This is actually as a result of winning a competition that they were sponsoring, so I didn’t even have to write a begging letter!

That’s fabulous news and massively deserved. Watson Little is a terrific agency and we wish Paul*ne all possible success from here on. Congratulations to her and we hope the book deals come rolling in. We’ve got our paws crossed for her.

NB: Pauline interviewed me on her Wivenhoe Writers site. Do check it out.

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